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A Beautiful Beginning to the Opera Season

September 06, 1996|BILL HIGGINS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The same spirit that gave Franco Zeffirelli's production of "Pagliacci" a prolonged, enthusiastic standing ovation spilled out onto the Music Center's plaza Wednesday night during the black-tie gala celebrating the opera season's kickoff.

It was obvious that the Italians, or at least Zeffirelli, had conquered Los Angeles. John Lithgow called the production "ravishing." Barbara Davis said it was the most beautiful staging of any of tenor Placido Domingo's L.A. opening nights. John Van de Kamp dubbed it "an Italian 'West Side Story.' " Jodie Foster described it as "full of life."

"I don't know a lot about opera," said the actress, "but the times when I didn't like it were when it was too grand, too remote. This seemed spontaneous and lively and in a way comfortable."

The production with 150-member cast was so lavishly detailed it reminded Jeff Burkhart of the time he worked with Zeffirelli on a film adaptation of "Dante's Inferno."

"It would have been great," said the screenwriter. "It also would have cost about $300 million."

And while this was a night for the Italian director to conquer, he did it in alliance with the Spanish-born tenor who has become as integral to the Music Center as the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in which he performs. Kirk Douglas was so awed by Domingo's pre-intermission aria he said, "It alone is worth the price of admission."

"Placido Domingo is like a good Bordeaux wine," said Lalo Schifrin. "The more he ages, the better he gets. I'd like to have him in my wine cellar."

Since "Pagliacci" is a relatively short opera it's usually staged with another piece, but Opera Board Chairman Bernard Greenberg said Zeffirelli and Domingo had been "insistent" that it stand alone.

"Some people object," said Greenberg. "But you go to a movie that's 90 or 100 minutes long. This is the same length. It's a wonderful operatic experience. You don't have to go on to something else."

On this night, what the 850 patrons went on to was an Italian meal, dancing to a Brazilian band and being hosted by the very English Mary Hayley, who co-chaired the gala with Selim Zilkha.

Hayley said she wanted the after-party to reflect the opera's setting and "have the feel of a traveling show in an open-air park." To achieve this, the plaza was strung with multicolored lights, the trees wrapped in garlands and a gold-curtained stage set for the band.

Among those dining were Drew Barrymore, who wore a Tom Mark gown, Joan Hotchkis, Opera General Director Peter Hemmings, Peter and Annette O'Malley, David Hockney, Natalie Cole, Pierce Brosnan, Dino De Laurentiis, Tara Colburn, Alice and Joe Coulombe, Suzanne de Passe, Fred Hayman, Suzanne Marx, Metropolitan Opera General Manager Joseph Volpe, and Barbara Piasecka Johnson, who underwrote the production.

"You think of other opera companies like La Scala, Covent Garden, even San Francisco, that have gone on for so many years," said Hayley. "What we have is a very young company that's achieved a level of astonishing brilliance."

* RELATED STORIES F1, F13

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